HC Deb 27 July 1984 vol 64 cc1376-95 9.41 am
Mr. Marcus Fox (Shipley)

I beg to move, That Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones be discharged from the Trade and Industry Committee and Mr. Bernard Conlan be added to the Committee..

The Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following motions: That Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson be discharged from the Education, Science and Arts Committee and Mr. Roger Sims be added to the Committee. That Sir Reginald Eyre be discharged from the Environment Committee and Mr. Julian Critchley be added to the Committee. That Mr. Mark Robinson be discharged from the Foreign Affairs Committee and Mr. Robert Harvey be added to the Committee. That Mr. Michael Lord be discharged from the Agriculture Committee and Mr. Jim Spicer be added to the Committee. That Mr. Robert Harvey be discharged from the Committee on Welsh Affairs and Mr. Keith Best be added to the Committee. I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) relating to the motion on the Committee on Welsh Affairs.

Mr. Fox

There were occasions over the last few weeks when I thought that this moment would never come. The travails of last night did not encourage me either. I congratulate Liberal and SDP Members on their good humour last night. If that is the consequence of their annual dinner, I recommend that they have one every week.

First, I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland), who for nine years in opposition and in government carried out the task that I now perform. He did the House a great service and I am sure that all hon. Members would like to show their appreciation. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] On 26 October 1979 my predecessor as chairman of the Committee of Selection, in an early debate on the appointment of Select Committees said: I knew we were on a hiding to nothing, and so it turned out. He referred to the House's decision to entrust the nominations to Select Committees to the Committee of Selection. I can only echo his sentiments.

The fundamental problem that brings us here today is that, given a finite number of Select Committee places, not every hon. Member can be on a Select Committee of his or her choice or, indeed, on a Select Committee at all. Earlier in this Parliament the Government eased the problem temporarily by increasing the number of places on Select Committees. The Leader of the House gave his reasons for that move, contrary to the advice of the Liaison Committee, which sought to have fewer Members on Select Committees, not more. It was hoped that increasing the number from four to between nine and 11, would ease the anguish of minor Opposition parties.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Minor? Twenty-five per cent?.

Mr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman talks about 25 per cent., but I am talking about 44 hon. Members who are involved in six or seven minor Opposition parties. [Interruption.] As far as I am aware I have no instructions to take account of proportional representation when I perform my duties.

My point is that, having given a little to Liberal and SDP Members, it seems discourteous of them to disrupt the work of the Committee of Selection and to seek to deprive Select Committees of their full number to do the work which they are set up to do. The nominations made to the House by the Committee of Selection are only nominations. They can be and have been overturned by the House. That is its right.

I shall explain briefly how the Committee of Selection arrives at its nominations. The House has given the Committee virtually no guidance as to how it should allocate places on Select Committees. In self-defence it has adopted Standing Order No. 65, which relates to the appointment of Select Committees and states that the Committee of Selection shall have regard to the qualifications of those Members nominated and to the composition of the House. The Committee of Selection has further resolved not to appoint members of the Government, parliamentary private secretaries or official Opposition Front Bench spokesmen.

To arrive at the total number of hon. Members which each Committee should have while reflecting the composition of the House, the Committee has taken the total number of places on Select Committees, ascertained the proportion of members of each party in the House and applied it to the smaller number. For the purposes of that exercise, the smaller Opposition parties have been treated as one group. When the total entitlement of each party or party group has been worked out, it is left to the Opposition parties to negotiate between themselves as to which Committee should contain representatives of which smaller parties.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

The hon. Gentleman said that it was for the smaller parties to "negotiate". Does "negotiate" mean to be told or to negotiate?

Mr. Fox

That is not a matter for the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. It seems to me that the hon. Members who represent the Labour and Liberal parties on the Committee of Selection get on extremely well. I would have thought that negotiations took place in a friendly way. It has never been brought to my attention during meetings that there is discord, but obviously Liberal Members have a more personal knowledge of that than I have.

Mr. Smith

Am I right to infer from the hon. Gentleman's last comment that if it were brought to his attention that there was discord, he, as Chairman, would be prepared to intervene and try to do something about it?.

Mr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman who comes from the North, as I do, shows the common sense for which we are rightly famous. I shall deal with that very point further on in my speech.

The Committee of Selection adjudicates between conflicting claims within one party or group to a place on a Select Committee if necessary. It was on that basis that the Committee of Selection nominated a member of the SDP to the Defence Committee, but that nomination was overturned by the House. If the SDP is unrepresented on Select Committees today, that is not the fault of the Committee of Selection.

The representation of the smaller Opposition parties on Select Committees depends to some extent on their flexibility. If a party is willing to serve on a variety of Committees, it is more likely to have a larger representation than if it is interested only in a limited selection.

One Select Committee has two hon. Members from the smaller parties. That was not the Committee of Selection's original idea, but it was done by agreement and without infringing the principle that the Government should and must have a majority on each Committee. There is no reason why such a disposition should not be made within the guidelines that the Committee of Selection has set itself.

I understand that it will be argued today, as it has been argued before, that the Scottish and Welsh Affairs Committees should be composed so as to reflect the balance of parties in those regions rather than that in the House as a whole. I can only repeat what my predecessor said, which is that Parliament is a United Kingdom Parliament. In the absence of instructions from the House to the contrary, the Committee is unwilling to abandon its practice of appointing Committees that reflect the balance of parties in the House.

On at least one previous occasion the House overruled the Committee of Selection. If it chooses to do so again, that is its right. If it chooses to give the Committee of Selection more specific instructions as to how to nominate to Select Committees than it has so far done, I should not be averse to that development. The Committee of Selection is set up to carry out the wishes of the House.

Finally, failing any instructions, the Liberal-SDP amendment that affects the Welsh Affairs Select Committee is designed to ignore the balance of the House and to take a Conservative place that is not on offer. The House must resist such tactics. I hope that, after this debate, the vacancies can be filled and that the Select Committees involved can be brought to full strength.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The hon. Gentleman said that a place was not on offer. Who was making an offer?.

Mr. Fox

The reason for the replacement on that Committee was that a Conservative Member was appointed a PPS. Under the rules that I have described, he was ineligible to serve on the Committee, so another Conservative Member was appointed to fill his place. That is why I said that there was no place on offer from the Conservative party.

I hope that we can get over the problems of the past few weeks and that the six Select Committees can continue that worthwhile work.

9.50 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon Tweed)

I have some sympathy with the predicament of the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), who has come late to these matters, having been appointed Chairman of the Committee of Selection since the original row of which this is still the rumbling consequence. He is largely an innocent in the matter, except in so far as he may have cast votes on matters to which I shall refer later. I have not troubled to check his Division record on that, because I am sure that he comes to the Chair of the Committee with a fresh mind and anxious to assist. As ever, his spirit and approach have been helpful and co-operative.

I almost regret the fact that the former Chairman of the Committee — the hon. Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland)—is not present today. I worked with him for many years, and I sharply criticised the way in which he dealt with this matter.

In relation to the Select Committee on Defence, the Committee of Selection went through exactly the procedures described by the hon. Member for Shipley and sought to apply the overall, balanced figures of the House, taking into account the number of Members in minority parties. Having done so, the Committee nominated my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) to that Select Committee. The matter then came before the House, where that recommendation was voted down. I criticised the hon. Member for Gedling, who was then Chairman of the Committee of Selection, because I contended that he was conniving at the overturning of his Committee's recommendation, in that he was present in the Division Lobby thanking hon. Members who had voted against his Committee's recommendation.

I mention that to give the flavour of our original argument. The Government threw an SDP member off the Select Committee on Defence. Why did they do it? I am bound to say that I was not in full possession of the facts when I spoke in the debate and tried to explain why I believed they had done so. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) was put on the Committee in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, and at the time everyone wondered why it had been done. It is reasonable that Ulster Unionist Members should be represented in proportion to their numbers, but they said that they were prepared to serve on only a limited number of Select Committees and, therefore, turned down the offer of places on several Committees. There seemed to be great anxiety to replace an existing member of the Committee with the hon. member for Fermanangh and South Tyrone. My hon. Friend had served with distinction on the Committee, and it was generally agreed, and mentioned during that debate, that he had been a most valuable member.

All was revealed in The Times — that valuable newspaper of record—which, although nowadays it has some lapses that I lament, went into the matter in some detail. Mr. Julian Haviland, always a careful journalist, said: There are signs that ministers and those who advise them think that the best time to nobble the committees is at the outset, by interfering with the choosing of members by the nominally independent Committee of Selection. He described what was happening and why. There was concern on the Government side that the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins) should be appointed Chairman of the Defence Select Committee and considerable doubt as to whether he would gather enough votes to gain that chairmanship. At the time, the Government wanted him to be Chairman of the Liaison Committee as well, although he did not get that post.

How was the right hon. Gentleman's position to be secured as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence? Mr. Haviland, referring to the Patronage Secretary, said: Wakeham was active on another front. He sent an emissary to James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Ulster Unionists, who was aggrieved that his party had no member on any committee. An understanding was reached that Conservative votes would be used to take the Social Democrat, John Cartwright, off the committee and put on the Ulster Unionist, Ken Maginnis, instead. Maginnis does not admire Atkins but was expected to learn to do so quite quickly. These precautions proved unnecessary. The Conservative solved their own problem in the end, and outsiders did not count. It is not for us to delve into the internal arguments of the Conservative party, which were prevalent at the time, and in which the position of the right hon. Member for Spelthorne was crucial. It may be remembered that there was much argument at the time about what his rightful position should be and the extent to which the Prime Minister's strong support for him should be evidenced in various ways. But that is neither our problem nor our business.

What happened was that, because of an internal wrangle in the Conservative party, a distinguished member of a Select Committee, who was known to be doing a good job, was thrown off the Committee, not by the Committee of Selection—not by the colleagues of the hon. Member for Shipley — but by the votes of the Conservative majority in the House. The Leader of the House cannot have it both ways. He cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the Committee of Selection determines the membership of Select Committees, that it has nothing to do with the Government, who simply allow the impartial procedures to go ahead, and then take part in such a manoeuvre. Nor can he stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the allocation of Opposition time is purely a matter for the Leader of the Opposition, and that he has nothing to do with it. He knows that, at the end of the day, the votes of his majority push through those matters. It is nothing more noble or grand than that; it is the basic power of a Government majority.

The result was that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich was thrown off the Select Committee on Defence, and the SDP was then unrepresented on Select Committees because, being reasonable and moderate, it had made a bid for the single place on a Select Committee that it already had. It had not even picked out one Committee — for example, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs — and said, "We will go on that Committee and no other." It simply wished to continue to be represented on the Select Committee on Defence. The Select Committee believed that to be reasonable, but the Government got their way by this squalid manoeuvre. Nothing has been done to put it right.

On the same evening, we sought to do what we shall try to do again— [Interruption.] I wonder whether I could prevail upon my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) to get me a glass of water, which is one of the many privileges of the official Opposition that may be as desirable to other hon. Members.

On that occasion, we tried to change the composition of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, because we believed that the Committee of Selection, perhaps unduly influenced by the constraints which the House has put on it, or by the United Kingdom return of Members of Parliament rather than the political position in Wales, had been grossly unfair to the party in Wales which had the best claim to the minority party seat on that Committee in terms of seats won and votes cast—it was certainly the best claim on votes cast, and it was an equal claim on seats won. We do not contend that Plaid Cymru should not be represented on that Committee, because it would be absurd for the next largest minority in Wales not to be represented on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. We support that proposition, just as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) supports our view and has added his name to our amendment.

The effect of the decision, taken this time by the Committee of Selection, was that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) was thrown off the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on which he was a serving and distinguished member. Again, both inside and outside the House, it is widely recognised that my hon. Friend is one of the foremost political figures in Wales—a person whose opinions count and whose standing is high in Wales. It was extraordinary to throw him off the Committee in that way, and it is even more absurd that the hon. Member who was appointed to his place has, after a short time, been discharged from the Committee. I recall that, at the time, he made great play in his part of Wales of the importance of his place on the Committee and of the benefits that would flow from it. However, after a short time, to achieve the supposedly distinguished status of PPS, he has been removed from the Committee.

Mr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman's memory fails him. The reason why the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) was dropped from the Committee was that there were two conflicting nominations from two minor parties. In its wisdom, the Committee of Selection thought that when an hon. Member had served for a Parliament, it should not always be assumed that he must continue, because other hon. Members had a right to be considered. The place of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North was taken by another Welsh Member from one of the minor parties.

Mr. Beith

I think that I had compressed my argument to a degree that made it fair for the hon. Member for Shipley to make that point. However, I believe that these Select Committees will do the best possible job if they build up the standing and status of their individual members.

For the Committee of Selection to say that because an hon. Member has served on a Select Committee for the duration of a Parliament he has had his turn and that it is time that another hon. Member came on to the Committee is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of Back-Bench Select Committees. Those who have advocated these Committees from the start believe that the hon. Members who serve on them should do so for a fair period of time and thereby help to establish the status of those Committees, their Chairmen and their long-term interest in the issues being considered by them. They are not like Standing Committees, which constantly change their membership. They should establish themselves over a period of time.

I recognise that the Committee of Selection, because of the way that it judged it had to deal with the matter, finished up making a choice between two minority parties. However, I was referring to the later choice that the House made between my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North and our proposition to take off one of the Government's members. Our reason for making that proposition was that the Government had plenty of members on the Committee and, as it turned out, one of the hon. Members whose names appear on the Order Paper today did not need to stay on that Committee because he had other ways in which he could best serve the House.

The Government had room to manoeuvre. They had the opportunity to give up one of their places or to take the other course which we suggested that same day, which was to increase the size of the Committee to the same size as the Scottish Affairs Committee. What was so unreasonable about the Committee for that other nation of Great Britain — Wales — having a Committee of the same size as Scotland's? By adopting that solution we would not have harmed anyone. We would not have taken a place filled by a Conservative Member or anyone else.

The Government had two options. They could have increased the size of the Committee or given up one of their places to us. They rejected both those reasonable suggestions. Again, that is where I think the position of the Leader of the House is so inconsistent. One minute he is happy to see the votes of Conservative Members used in the Division Lobby to overturn the recommendation of the Committee of Selection. Then he shelters behind the Committee of Selection in refusing to yield up a Government place in these circumstances.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Has my hon. Friend overlooked the fact that the Conservative party in Wales is a minor party?.

Mr. Beith

Indeed, and that will be even more marked after the next general election.

The position in Scotland often exercises the mind of the House and is often raised by hon. Members in several parties. All that history could have been made a thing of the past and ceased to be a festering sore if the Government had taken some initiative to make things good now or if the Committee of Selection had found some way to do so.

Nothing has been done. There is still no SDP Member on any Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North is not a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, where it is widely believed in Wales he is entitled to be and should be. Again and again, the reasonable claims of minorities in the House, which are huge minorities in the country, are simply overturned. It is not good enough. There is no way that we can accept that obscure procedures in the House have any effect and are an adequate means of dealing with these matters.

Following a point of order earlier on a similar matter, we were told from the Chair and by the Leader of the House that the Procedure Committee could sort out the problem. But what happens is that the votes of Government Members and Labour Members on the Procedure Committee are used to ensure that we cannot discuss the matter at all. The issue of Opposition time is not even considered. In instances such as this, the votes of the Government will be used to ensure that what we think is a great wrong is not put right. We are not prepared to accept that we can be put off and brushed aside in this way.

It is never our intention to disrupt the procedures of the House, but if we are told that there are good and adequate ways to which we should resort and they crumble in our hands because they have no substance, we are bound to react strongly. I quote the example of the Committee of Selection because here is a case where at least, in the instance of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, the Committee of Selection had gone through the procedures and produced what we believed was a fair and satisfactory procedure, only to see it overturned by the Government's majority in the House. The Government shelter behind procedures and the possibility of referring problems to distant Committees and will not do anything to put right a basic grievance. While one quarter of the voters send us here, we are not prepared to put up with it.

10.6 am

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I wish to raise a matter which I believe to be of great importance.

The Committee of Selection has decided that Parliamentary Private Secretaries should not serve on Select Committees. This deprives Select Committees of some very able people and has produced in these motions a number of changes to the Select Committees which I can only describe as prejudicial to the good conduct of their business.

As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, the Select Committees need to build up a degree of experience and understanding of the matters that they are investigating. Constantly to change the membership of a Select Committee merely because an hon. Member is made a Parliamentary Private Secretary is bad for the Committee's business. Provided that an hon. Member is not appointed to serve as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Department which the Select Committee is overseeing, which obviously would not be acceptable, I see no real reason why a PPS cannot continue to serve on a Select Committee. The method of appointing and discharging members has, in my experience, disrupted the work of Committees.

I ask the House to consider the position where a serious matter has been investigated over a period of six to eight months and perhaps longer. Trips overseas may have been made and expense incurred so that the Committee might gain the knowledge required to write its report. If one of its members is then made a Parliamentary Private Secretary and is immediately discharged from the Committee, that is an extreme waste of the hon. Member's time and the money of the House, and it is done merely to fulfil the rule of the Committee of Selection which decided—and the House approved—that a PPS should be discharged immediately from any Select Committee on which he was serving.

In my view the Committee of Selection should at least wait until the work upon which the hon. Member concerned has been engaged is completed before moving to discharge him. A method might be developed to enable him to operate on the Committee until the completion of its current work and the production of its report. But I am certain that we are seriously undermining the effectiveness of Select Committees by adopting a system whereby Parliamentary Private Secretaries may not serve in the first place and, secondly, by discharging them with undue haste when they have already done a great deal of work and money has been spent on the production of its report.

10.9 am

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

While it is fresh in the mind of the House, I take up the point just made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells). There has been a depressing tendency in recent years to elevate Parliamentary Private Secretaries to membership of the Government and to expect them to accept the discipline of voting for the Government. They are not members of the Government. This is not part of an extension of patronage. It is a private arrangement between a Minister and a Back-Bench Member. A PPS comes into the House to help the Minister with his parliamentary duties, but he is not part of the Government. This is a dangerous extension of the bureaucratising of the post of Parliamentary Private Secretary.

I was PPS, from the day that I entered the House, to the late Gerry Reynolds, a man for whom I had the utmost respect. Apart from being unable to speak on defence matters during that period, I was free to participate in any rebellion, in any vote against the Government and in any action in the House—and I did. What is more, I served on the Select Committee on Science and Technology during that period and learned a great deal to my personal benefit for subsequent years. I did not realise that the ruling had been made. It is wrong, and I hope that the Committee of Selection will think again about it. It is lunacy to take a PPS off a Committee in the middle of an investigation. I support the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford and I am glad that he has brought the matter to the attention of the House.

It is courteous of the Leader of the House to be here, but he is the villain of the piece. The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) serves two functions, as hon. Members often do. He is a skilled parliamentarian and, as Chairman of the Committee of Selection, he genuinely serves the interests of the House. He is also a skilled politician. Any member of the SDP remembering Darlington will acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's political skills. His speech moved deftly between his duties to the House and his duties to to his party.

Serious issues are involved for the Leader of the House. He faces the utmost humiliation. Having consipired to vote down the recommendation of the Committee of Selection that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) should serve on the Select Committee on Defence—one of the most disgraceful episodes of this Parliament — the Government now pray in aid the Committee of Selection so that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) is not appointed to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. If hon. Members had a genuinely free vote, few would support the propositions that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich should not serve on the Select Committee on Defence and that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North should not serve on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

How can we overcome some of the problems that we face? I understand why the Government insist on having a majority on Select Committees. We cannot object to that. Problems have arisen when more than one of the minority parties — the SDP, Liberals, the Ulster Unionists the Welsh nationalists or the Scottish nationalists—have a legitimate claim to be represented on a Select Committee. The answer lies in the Leader of the House enlarging the size of such Committees.

That solution would have solved the problems involved in the composition of the Select Committee on Defence. Of course there was a case for the Ulster Unionists to be represented on that Committee. The Ministry of Defence is involved in day-to-day events in Northern Ireland and in many of the problems of the Province. Who could deny the claims of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) to serve on that Committee?

However, the Leader of the House had no right to use the Government Whips to defeat our proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich should serve on that Committee. The hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) was in our Lobby shooing out Conservative Members who, having heard the arguments, wanted to support our case. Only a few minutes before, the Leader of the House had donned a mantle of pure innocence, telling us that he was not involved and that it was a House of Commons matter. He said that it would not be appropriate for him to vote, yet we had his Whip in our Lobby.

That happened in the middle of the night and was barely reported. One of the advantages of today's debate is that it is taking place in prime time—we can claim some credit for that, after last night's events—and perhaps even the BBC may report it. The descriptions of debates in the House given in the neutered and edited versions of "Yesterday in Parliament" are a disgrace. The BBC is perpetrating the old party system; it is part of that system. The independence of the governors of the BBC will be seriously questioned and will, I believe, be taken to the courts, on the issue of natural justice.

Dealing with the Leader of the House, which is a charming prospect, how can he defend the decision not to increase the size of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs? The Liberal party has a long, proud history of involvement in Wales. No one has played a more active role in Welsh politics than my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North.

In recent months, there have been demonstrations about the European Community milk quotas and their effect on hill farmers in Wales. My hon. Friend has an intimate knowledge of agriculture in Wales. His is a knowledgeable voice, he lives in Wales, is involved with the people and speaks the language. Yet he does not serve on the Select Committee.

The debate is also about the way in which the House conducts its business. Is it reflecting the distortions of the voting system or does it have a responsibility to the country to reflect the political debate in its widest and most comprehensive form? The House faces a problem. Are we to become a backwater which is unable to reflect the day-to-day debate in councils and in by-elections to councils and Parliament? Are we to be rigid, fossilised and incapable of adapting?

The Labour party has become a unilateralist party. It is entitled to go down that route, but must the country have a Select Committee on Defence which is able to reflect only the views of the Government and of the new Labour party, with its unilateralism and signed-up members of CND? My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich took the Labour party apart in the general election in a constituency which was thought to be a solid Labour seat. My hon. Friend is a man of the utmost integrity and is respected in WEU and in NATO. His voice should be heard on the Select Committee on Defence.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that an hon. Member represents a political party or a constituency? A fundamental issue is involved.

Dr. Owen

An hon. Member represents both. He is sent here as a representative, not as a delegate. I know that some Labour Members find that doctrine hard to understand. An hon. Member takes into account the views of his party and of his constituents, but he is not mandated or told how to vote by a general management committee.

The House has a right to have legitimate and authentic voices reflected in its councils. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich is such a voice in defence matters and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North is such a voice in Welsh Affairs.

The Leader of the House must decide what is to be done. In this Session we have had 19 Opposition days — part of the patronage of the leader of the Labour party. But he represents only one part of the Opposition, and represents it rather inadequately. Given the grievance that we feel about Select Committees, we might well have wished to use half an Opposition day to bring the matter to the House. We had no redress and no opportunity. The SDP was granted half a day, the Liberal party half a day and the Ulster Unionists half a day, by grace and favour of the leader of the Labour party. Is that democracy? Is that the position that the Leader of the Opposition will defend through 1985, 1986 and 1987?

I assure the leader of the Labour party that the issue will not go away. What he saw last night is just the tip of the iceberg. We make two legitimate demands: that our viewpoint is adequately represented on Select Committees, and that the allocation of Opposition Supply days reflects, at the very least, the expression of opinions represented in the country. It is not tolerable to carry on in the present way.

I know that the Leader of the Opposition has some difficulty. He has to balance the forces of disruption. I think that that is how he would see his role. Can the Labour party make more trouble for him than the Liberals and the Social Democrats? I ask him to lift his sights beyond this place and to consider what the people of the country think. They are beginning to realise that the Conservative party is conspiring to ensure that the Labour party has a monopoly of the 19 Opposition Supply days. They are beginning to understand the extent of the co-operation and fraternisation that exist between the usual channels—between the Labour party and the Conservative party. As the people become more and more aware of the direness of the Labour party programme, there will come a moment when they will say to the Tory party, "We are fed up to the teeth with what is happening between the two parties."

The power of disruption of the Labour party these days is inadequate, to say the least. Labour Members are hardly ever here. But apart from that—

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the results of proportional representation systems in other countries and coalition Governments is that there are more back-room dealings, more smoke-filled rooms, and more uncertainty than we ever have in our electoral system?

Dr. Owen

I have a feeling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would not wish me to go too far down that road. Obviously, I hold a different view from the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth). There is a basic, fundamental, democratic issue involved. The alliance parties, which received 26 per cent. of the vote at the general election, are represented in inadequate numbers in this House. They have continued to receive that support in by-election after by-election—six in this Parliament. In fact, 36 per cent. of the people have voted for the SDP-Liberal alliance, 33 per cent. for the Conservative party, and a mere 29 per cent. for the Labour party. When we see the expression of opinion that is building up in the country, it is at our peril in this House that we shut it off. That is the issue.

If the hon. Member for Shipley does not want a change in the electoral system, let me tell him that he is conspiring to ensure that there will be a change. He is becoming our ally. This House must at least accommodate the new political opinion that exists in the country. Is it right that the BBC should be allowed to carry on in the way that it does? It is a quango appointed by the Government, with some legacies from the last Labour Government. If the Broadcasting Complaints Commission cannot even investigate a major issue of this importance because it considers it to be beyond its terms of reference, it will have to be interpreted by the judges in the courts. What will happen there is an open question. The doctrine of natural justice may have to be extended to this area. It may be that only a legal judgment will restore the authority of this House, because this House is cheapening itself. Today the Leader of the House has an opportunity—.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?.

Dr. Owen

Today the Leader of the House has an opportunity to start redressing the balance, to listen to the voice of the people of this country, and to reflect, in his decision on Select Committees, what he will later have to reflect in the allocation of Opposition Supply days. He is a parliamentarian and understands the House of Commons. I know that he is just as opposed as his hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to any change in the voting system, but it is incumbent on him to ensure that this House of Commons—.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?.

Dr. Owen

—reflects opinion in the country.

10.26 am
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am glad to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth. Devonport (Dr. Owen), whose views I fully support. The motion raises very important issues for this House. I agree particularly with what my hon. Friend said about the ways in which our debates are broadcast and the obvious bias that is now being built into the BBC, despite the fact that we are given a measly allocation of the time available in this place. The BBC, especially in its "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament" programmes, totally ignores the contributions of alliance Members. That is outrageous, given the weight of opinion that is behind our views when they are expressed in this House.

In moving the motion, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) said that the Committee of Selection could have no regard for PR. We do not ask the Committees to have any regard for PR but we ask it to have some regard for the views of the people of this country. The way in which the Government Benches act in this House shows a sense of arrogance and disregard for the people that I find unbelievable. At the last general election about 8 million people voted for the alliance parties. Anyone would think, because of their 140 majority, that the Government won some great victory at the last general election; in fact, the Conservative vote went down by 700,000. Two out of three people did not vote for the party which so arrogantly commands a massive and obscene majority on the Conservative Benches.

In Liverpool, where half a million people live, there is not one Conservative Member, nor is there one in cities such as Glasgow. The effect of motions such as the one before the House today is to deny the people who voted for the alliance at the general election the opportunity of being properly and adequately represented on the Committees of this House. That cannot be right.

The hon. Member for Shipley, in moving the motion, said that the Government must have a majority. That is legitimate. There is nothing unreasonable about Governments wanting a majority. What is important is the size of the majority. It is ludicrous to suggest that Committees cannot be made larger and that more Committee members cannot be appointed. The Government do not need massive majorities on Select Committees, which are supposed to act as guardians of the interests of hon. Members. The Select Committees are supposed to act as watchdogs, looking at the issues which affect this country. They are supposed to be drawing up programmes and policies for the benefit of the people.

I serve on the Select Committee on the Environment, which is currently undertaking good work, on an all-party basis, on acid rain. On such an issue it is not necessary for the Government to have a majority of three or four to protect their interests. Yet frequently the Government try to pack Committees to ensure that they have a massive majority. That undermines the role of Select Committees, because they then become a reflection of everything that is wrong with this House of Commons. They are turned into party political stalking horses, and that is not good enough.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Shipley in his reference to the regions of Scotland and Wales. We do not regard Scotland and Wales as regions of England. They are countries, which are part of the United Kingdom. That is an important difference between us and the Conservatives. We believe that the authentic voice of Wales, in the person of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) should be heard on the Select Committee for Welsh Affairs. In Wales, at the last general election, 31 per cent. of the people voted Conservative, 37 per cent. Labour, 23 per cent. alliance, and 7.8 per cent. nationalist.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman agree that there is often some resentment in England that the Celtic fringes are over-represented in parliamentary seats in this House? That is something that the people of England have to put up with.

Mr. Alton

I long for the day when the regions of England are represented by committees here. I also long for the day when there is devolution and decentralisation and genuine federal government. That will not happen as a result of denying the people of Scotland and Wales proper representation on Select Committees. As only 31 per cent. of the electorate in Wales voted Conservative and as the combined poll drawn by the alliance and Plaid Cymru was also 31 per cent., it cannot be right that we are denied representation on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. The fact that we are denied representation shows utter disregard for the people of Wales and for my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North. He has spoken vigorously and frequently on behalf of the people of Wales. His voice has often been heard in that Select Committee. Indeed, how many hon. Members speak the Welsh language? Yet we deny my hon. Friend a place on the Select Committee. He lives and farms in Wales and speaks for its people.

Last night we made it clear, by keeping Conservative Members here until the early hours of the morning, that we shall not tolerate the way in which we have been treated. We shall not put up with the corrupt and fraudulent electoral system that cheats the people of their proper representation. We shall not put up with the nepotistic system that ensures that alliance voters are not adequately represented on Select Committees and which denies us Supply days on which to advance our views. When we ring the changes at the next general election we shall treat minorities with more respect and concern than has been shown to us. Last night we laid down a marker. If things do not change and if we are riot given better representation, we shall be back night after night and be forced to disrupt the House's proceedings until the Government decide to ensure that the views of some 8 million voters at the last general election are properly heard in all parts of the House.

10.32 am
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

There is an old saying which runs, "Methinks he doth protest too much". Much of what we have heard this morning is a protest that is based on a wish to reflect here the wishes of many people who, alliance Members say support them. Their arguments are misconceived, misrepresented and, if I might put it so boldly, an insult to the electorate.

In the short time that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have listened to the arguments that alliance Members advanced this morning many times. I have heard often about the 8 million votes and the 26 per cent. poll. There comes a time when we must ask just one question, which I put to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) in an intervention. Is a Member of Parliament a Member for a party or for a constituency? Perhaps I am the right person to ask that question. The person who posed it to me stood for election as a member of one party, came here and became a member of another party. Others who have changed parties have occasionally put their cause to the electorate.

Mr. Wallace

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman's point is that we are elected to represent a constituency. Why, then, when we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on a European Community matter to which the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) responds, does the hon. Member for Livingston take as long if not longer to respond than, say, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochabler (Mr. Johnston)? What is it about the constituency of Livingston that allows its hon. Member to speak three times as long as my hon. Friend?.

Mr. Bermingham

I wonder what the relevance of that question is to the debate. Perhaps it could be argued that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) replies on behalf of the official Opposition.

In regard to what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) said about last night, we should ensure that the record is straight. We should be aware of how last night happened and how it began. Another hon. Member began the opposition to the Lords amendments. It is remarkable that the Liberal party did not arrive from dinner until approaching midnight, yet many other hon. Members—.

Mr. Alton

Where were you?.

Mr. Bermingham

On the Opposition Front Bench for almost all of the debate. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill may by all means challenge the business of the House and the Government — any Member for Parliament should challenge the Government as a duty—but he should at least be here to do it. The experience of many hon. Members who have served on Standing Committees in the past year is that alliance Members have frequently been absent.

Mr. Beith

Does he hon. Gentleman recall my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) having to take the Opposition Front Bench in a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments because no Labour Members, Front or Back Bench, attended the Committee?.

Mr. Bermingham

I can also recall several occasions when I have had to move Liberal amendments in Standing Committees because no Liberals were present. Perhaps that is a reflection of the argument that is at the heart of this matter. It is said that Select Committees should have more hon. Members. Nevertheless, Select Committees should reflect the House. I have the privilege of serving on a Select Committee. It is an interesting experience. I agree with the right hon. Member for Devonport that it is possible to gain detailed knowledge in such Committees. However, there are 650 hon. Members and a limited number of places on Select Committees.

I occasionally consider these matters with a disinterested eye. All hon. Members should be given the opportunity of serving on a Select Committee. That means reflecting the interests of hon. Members, and there seems no fairer way to reflect them than in the proportions in which hon. Members sit.

I have listened with interest to the arguments that have been advanced on whether we should proceed by way of the number of hon. Members elected or the percentage of votes cast at the general election. Were we to take the latter course, a number of amusing calculations could be developed. For example, on a Select Committee of 20, the division would be, say, 9:6:5 so as to reflect the percentages at the last general election, but that would in no way reflect the electorate's wishes.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Did my hon. Friend hear the remarks of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who said that on the day he was elected he was appointed a Parliamentary Private Secretary, that he went on to hold the posts of Parliamentary Under-Secretary and Minister of State and sat in a Labour Cabinet for five years? The right hon. Gentleman now demands proportional representation, having on no occasion during all that time pressed the point. Never did he press the case for PR in a Labour Cabinet to the point of putting his job on the line. Now, finding himself a member of a minority party, he demands PR. The British people should treat with cynicism the protests of those who suddenly find a need to change the rules.

Mr. Bermingham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The history books will record the accuracy of what he says and the reality of the will of the British people in this matter.

Dr. Owen

It seems extraordinary that an hon. Member who has been in the House for less than a year should be speaking for the official Opposition. The record should be put right. The Labour Government of whom the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) speaks voted for proportional representation for European Assembly elections. The proposition that those elections should be by way of PR was made by the then Foreign Secretary, who happened to be the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen).

Mr. Bermingham

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I repeat that the history books will show the full truth of the matter. In almost his final comments, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that Select Committees should reflect the percentages in the country.

The alliance bases its argument on the statement, "We got a quarter of the vote. Therefore, we were robbed when it came to our numbers in Parliament." The voters at the last election in each constituency were asked by the two main political parties to vote for a candidate of each of those parties. In other words, the alliance put up only one candidate, whereas the two main parties gave the electorate a choice.

If the parties which the alliance represents are for ever to fight as an alliance, presumably they will continue to put to the electorate in each constituency a joint policy covering the various matters in their joint manifesto. Or, after the election, will each party go its own way in this House? If so, that would not be fair to the electorate.

The major parties put a clearly defined policy to the electorate in each constituency. [Interruption.] At least the two main parties were honest in putting their case to the electorate. It is only fair to the people that the party putting its policy at the time of a general election should state that policy clearly and definately. Once a constituency has chosen its Member of Parliament, that person has a duty to all the electorate in the constituency an he or she must represent all of those interests in this House.

For whom are the alliance Members speaking when they say that they represent a quarter of the electorate? Are they speaking for the people in mine and other constituencies who voted for the alliance? The interruption caused to Select Committees as a result of the almost perennial objections that are made, sometimes late at night, about the membership of Select Committees, is an insult to many of those who serve on Select Committees.

Mr. David Steel

The hon. Gentleman has based the whole of his speech so far on the proposition that we are saying that because we got 25 per cent. of the vote, we should have 25 per cent. of the time or 25 per cent. of the membership of Select Committees. We have never put forward such a proposition. Whereas the official Opposition claim the vast majority of all Supply days, as well as all the rights they enjoy—of speaking from the Front Bench, of getting in on statements, or making statements longer than Government statements and speaking at great length in all debates—we are asking for only a tiny percentage of the time on the Floor of the House and a tiny percentage—nothing like 25 per cent.—of the membership of Select Committees. The whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech is based on a misconception.

Mr. Bermingham

If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to the speech, especially the closing remarks, of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, he would have heard him say, as Hansard will show, that it was all a question of percentages, and he spoke of — [Interruption.]—representation of 25 per cent.

I hope that the House will agree to the Select Committee changes that have been proposed so that the membership of the committees may be complete and the work of the Committees, which is valuable to the House, may continue. I hope that hon. Members who have interrupted my remarks, from a sedentary position and otherwise, will be present in the months and years to come as frequently as I and many other hon. Members.

10.50 am
The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I hope that it will not be thought too bizarre if I confine my remarks to motions 1 to 6 on the Order Paper, which are the subject of the debate and which derive from the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox).

Under Standing Order No. 82, approved by the House in 1979, the Committee of Selection, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend, is entrusted with the responsibility of nominating the members of departmental Select Committees. A number of remarks have been made this morning—which were in the good nature that one expects of the House fresh on a Friday morning — suggesting that there is a new special relationship and that I am the organ grinder and my hon. Friend the mascot in the way that these matters are perfected.

I am anxious to keep the temperature in the Chamber as low as possible and not to add to any unparliamentary expressions. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), when he was not threatening the BBC, was at his most entertaining and reactionary about the concept that the hierarchical society — which is clearly one to which he belongs both emotionally and by background—was portrayed in the relationship between myself and the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. I have to say, and it is sad to some extent, that that is a total travesty. The House has given entire discretion to the Committee of Selection in putting forward its nominations for the Committees. The Committee is not obliged to disclose its criteria. Its task, as defined by any charitable person, which must include the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), is not enviable. It could hardly be so in a House where up to 10 smaller Opposition parties together hold fewer than 50 seats.

I fully recognise that the membership of the departmental Committees should be decided with the widest possible measure of agreement. Last year the House agreed that all Committees — apart from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which has 13 members—should in future each have 11 members. In recommending that change to the House, which was contrary to the Liaison Committee's proposals for more compact Committees, I expressed the hope that that limited increase in numbers would provide the Committee of Selection and the House with more room for manoeuvre in seeking to balance conflicting claims to membership.

As the Liaison Committee pointed out, there must be a limit to the number of members on a Select Committee if its proceedings and questioning are to be effective. It is not practicable to expand membership to satisfy all claimants. I believe that last year's changes were as far as one could reasonably go in that last direction. Decisions on membership must, therefore, be taken. I cannot see how it can be done in any other way than on the basis of the view of the majority of the Members of the House. The Government's responsibility is to ensure that there is an opportunity for that to be expressed, and that we have done today.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 86, Noes 13.

Division No. 447] [10.53 am
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Boscawen, Hon Robert
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Bermingham, Gerald Braine, Sir Bernard
Berry, Sir Anthony Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)
Best, Keith Buchan, Norman
Biffen, Rt Hon John Buck, Sir Antony
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Burt, Alistair
Campbell-Savours, Dale Mather, Carol
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Mellor, David
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Merchant, Piers
Clarke, Thomas Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Cohen, Harry Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Coombs, Simon Montgomery, Fergus
Cope, John Moore, John
Corbyn, Jeremy Neubert, Michael
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Parry, Robert
Dalyell, Tam Pavitt, Laurie
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Eggar, Tim Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Emery, Sir Peter Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Fox, Marcus Shelton, William (Streatham)
Goodlad, Alastair Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Gow, Ian Skinner, Dennis
Gregory, Conal Spearing, Nigel
Gummer, John Selwyn Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Hayhoe, Barney Steen, Anthony
Henderson, Barry Stern, Michael
Hickmet, Richard Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Hind, Kenneth Straw, Jack
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Temple-Morris, Peter
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Howard, Michael Torney, Tom
Hunt, David (Wirral) Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Janner, Hon Greville Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Watts, John
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Lang, Ian Whitney, Raymond
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Wood, Timothy
Lilley, Peter
Lord, Michael Tellers for the Ayes:
Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Mr. Albert McQuarrie and
Major, John Mr. Eric Forth.
Malone, Gerald
Alton, David Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Ashdown, Paddy Steel, Rt Hon David
Beith, A. J. Wainwright, R.
Freud, Clement Wallace, James
Howells, Geraint
Johnston, Russell Tellers for the Noes:
Kennedy, Charles Mr. Archy Kirkwood and Mr. Malcolm Bruce.
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Penhaligon, David

Question accordingly agreed to.

Ordered, That Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones be discharged from the Trade and Industry Committee and Mr. Bernard Conlan be added to the Committee.